Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

I Want a Divorce starring Joan Blondell - On the Radio!

 “Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

I want a divorce!” “I want a divorce!” “I want a divorce!”

Faster, ever faster does the divorce mill grind away yesteryear's happiness!”

Why? Why? Why? Ask millions!”

Listen to 'I Want a Divorce', the copyrighted program approved by many leaders of church and state. The program that dramatizes the real life happenings in other people's marriages”.

So begins the radio version of I Want a Divorce starring Joan Blondell, a half hour series featuring cautionary tales of marital misadventure that ran for one season on the Mutual network from October 1940 to April 1941. Each week the show would focus on a hapless mismatched couple with marriage difficulties, with Joan playing with female lead in a variety of situations and genres. Sadly, there's not a great deal of information available about the show and only three of the episodes appear to exist. It's an unlikely movie spin off considering that the filmed version opened to poor reviews and box office just a month before the radio premiere, but one would have to guess that the guardians of morality saw it as a great opportunity to improve the minds of the enormous radio audience, using the melodramatic format and the lure of a genuine Hollywood star appearing each week.

However, it appears that Joan Blondell was hesitant to take on the show but was encouraged to do so by husband and radio veteran Dick Powell (who also appears in an couple of episodes). She ended up enjoying the experience as it gave her a chance play a different part each week, sometimes the hero, sometimes the villain all with the hope was that it would show people that she was in fact an accomplished and versatile actress. When promoting the show, she remarked:

"I have had to stand on my own feet again. You forget all about real acting in pictures. You have to concentrate for one minute and then you have perhaps a couple of hours rest. You have no worries about timing or anything else, for the directors, the camera men do it all for you. But on radio you have got to be alert; you have to prepare as well as execute whatever evolutions the script calls for”

Despite the versatility Joan displayed on the show, the radio version of I Want a Divorce failed to make waves both with listeners and casting directors and it soon disappeared into obscurity alongside the movie version with neither helping her career significantly.

One of the great things about listening to Old Time Radio is the proliferation of Hollywood stars making regular appearances in a variety of often unusual situations. Sometimes you discover previously unheard talents for comedy or drama and other times you realise that maybe your favourite star was just not cut out for radio. After all, acting on radio requires a different skill set from movies or theatre though it is surprising how many of the stars adapted seamlessly. In the early days, the worlds of radio and cinema largely kept themselves separate, with comparatively few making lengthy full time careers in both (Bing Crosby, Dick Powell and Don Ameche being notable names who did), but before long movie stars were being courted by the airwaves to helm their own shows. The real boom for this was in the late 40s and early 50s when A-listers like Humphrey Bogart (Bold Venture), Cary Grant (Mr and Mrs Blandings) and Ronald Colman (The Halls of Ivy) and many others had their own shows (all incidentally co-starring their wives). Joan Blondell wasn't unique in having her own dramatic radio series in 1940 but it definitely wasn't yet the norm, and the fact that she had to be talked into it either shows the lack of money from doing radio or perhaps a perceived lack of prestige.

From the mid 30s to the early 50s, Joan Blondell was an infrequent radio guest star, averaging a handful appearances in most years. By no means a familiar voice on the airwaves she nonetheless made sporadic appearances on the 'prestige' drama shows such as Lux Radio Theatre and Screen Guild Theater with their adaptions of current Hollywood movies. During the Second World War she was heard fairly regularly on Command Performance and other morale boosting shows on the Armed Forces Radio Network. She even made a few rare appearances on comedy and variety shows with the likes of Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye and Edgar Bergan (with Charlie McCarthy of course). All in all she had a small but solid radio resume which, if it still survived intact may have been crowned by I Want a Divorce.

Of the three existing episodes, only two currently circulate to listen to online and of those by far the most interesting is the episode from April 4th 1941 entitled “June and Perry”. The story concerns a mismatched love affair between June Hansen, (“a magnificent specimen, a farm girl in Wisconsin”) and Perry Hurst (“less than average size, an artist with an artist's outlook”). She lives with her father, is “like a Viking” and “loves the land” but doesn't think much of the local farmers as future husbands. While out swimming she happens to meet wandering artist Perry and immediately throws him in the lake, injuring his leg. She carries the wet and weedy artist home and despite having nothing in common, soon they are married.

Hard at work on the farm Perry quickly finds that his artistic hands are losing their touch with all the manual labour and he starts to hold a grudge towards June and her ideas. She tells him how art is just a “childish pastime” and no “business for a grown man”. She makes him choose between her and painting, saying “I want my husband to be a man, not a sissy”. Despite her father imploring June to meet Perry half way, painting wins out and Perry leaves. Later on Perry, now living in the relative safety of the city, finds out that June is pregnant so decides to return home to give the relationship another go.

Here the drama pauses for its mid show break (it doesn't appear to have garnered a sponsor), with the format seemingly that the couple split up in part one and get back together in part two. Next we skip forward five years and Perry has given up the forbidden art of painting “bending to June's will” and they now have a son to bicker over. Immediately we are introduced to their wayward bull Old Satan and the fact that their son, Jan should never play with him. This is foreshadowing.

Perry buys his son an easel, much to Jan's delight (“Oh boy look! I can paint just like a real painter!”). June takes the opposite view and here we come to the pivotal moment in the play - June's disapproval of her son becoming an artist. Thus far, Joan Blondell has been fine in the role of June. She's tripped over a couple of lines, but is trying to bring a certain physicality and inflexibility to the frankly unlikeable role. However, here in the most important line of the show, she fluffs her line completely (or if in fact she's reading the line as written, delivers it so badly as to reverse its meaning), proclaiming “Perry, you deliberately disregarded my wish. My son is is not going to be a farmer!” (cue dramatic chords). Wait, suddenly you're fine with him being an artist? Now, I know that most of these shows were recorded 'as live' but surely some sort of overdub could have been added in later to save the show? Oh well, let's just move along quietly and pretend it never happened. Nothing to see here.

Perry wants to encourage his son to be an artist but June, ever the optimist thinks it is only teaching him to be an “incompetent kind of a man” like his father, and will ruin all their lives. Jan shows great talent but then tragedy strikes! Jan decides to play with Old Satan (while wearing a red scarf, obviously) and is seemingly crippled by the brute. June takes the accident with her usual motherly grace, saying “I'd rather he had died...never to be able to walk or run like other boys”. Having just wished death on her only son, June suddenly realises that it's all been her fault and since he can only use his hands now she will help him to be an artist.

Jan naturally becomes a great artist with the full support of his mother and June realises that she is closer to Perry as a result. She even admits that “I think I begin to feel a little of what you meant when you talked of 'beauty' and 'nature'. It's a little like the love I feel for the farm”. Of course, this being Hollywood melodrama, Jan gets a last minute cure that will enable him to walk again just before the curtain falls and everyone lives happily ever after. The announcer then sums up what we have learnt tonight -

“And so ends tonight's I Want a Divorce play, emphasising the fact that sometimes it takes tragedy to awaken us to a true perspective on out lives”. Also, artists are undersized, underachieving losers who need to get out and do real work in the fields to earn a woman's respect. We also learned that I Want a Divorce contains no divorces! I want my half hour back! Joan Blondell then briefly returns to the microphone to say that Dick Powell will be her co-star next week, but unfortunately that episode doesn't exist.

Of course, it's easy to mock the high handed moralising of I Want a Divorce in both radio and movie forms but obviously the threat of divorce was something that concerned the powers that be in the early 40s. In fact, divorce rates in the United States had been steadily rising since the end of the Depression, and in 1940 stood at 2 per 1000 people (up from 1.3 in 1933) and peaking at 3.4 in 1947. Naturally, that number was nothing compared to the latter half of the 20th century but it was obviously troubling to the holders of moral decency. A number of reasons prompted the increase not least of, as the show highlights, the comparative ease of getting a divorce. Though it wasn't quite the conveyor belt of approval depicted in the opening credits, all a couple had to do was show fault in one party of the marriage. This is a familiar trope of movie melodrama of the 30s and 40s which regularly depicted the spousal abandonment of affections, cruelty, all manner of cheating and even divorce due to mental incapacity. As long as one side of the relationship was “innocent” the divorce could be approved. This gave rise to all sorts of chicanery and set ups to enable divorce seekers to escape their relationships. Conversely, if it was found that both parties were at fault (you know, like often happens in actual real life) then no divorce was granted and couples just had to grin and bear the crushing realization that they were stuck for life with someone that they hated.

Added to all this, the growing presence of places like Reno, Nevada with its ever dwindling residency time for a quickie divorce obviously led Hollywood to consult with those “many leaders of church and state” to see if something could be done. Of course, Hollywood and its stars had also been doing their bit to popularise the attraction of divorce for the last few decades on and off screen but better late than never I guess.  The line that they wanted to impress on their audience was to stay married. In the other available episode, Joan Blondell plays a singer who is married to a song writer and due to their work commitments they separate. At the end they decide to try again (despite still having the same commitments) and our announcer summarises that a marriage “in order to survive the so-called separation test, must have two people who are imbued with tolerance, understanding and a highly developed sense of logic”. Well, if they had all that, surely they wouldn't need to separate!

Anyway, despite the high number of actual happy marriages in society, the radio show paints a pretty grim picture of relationships. They were just towing the party line in showing that divorce was not in the interests of decent society but the 'just make the best of it' approach is kind of depressing and hardly makes of an entertaining half hour of radio drama. Again, it's difficult to assess the series as a whole when so little of it survives, and apparently there was a wide variety of styles used (the next episode after “June and Perry” appears to be a comedy about in-laws). What does survive is a prime example of over the top radio melodrama and is fairly entertaining in its own way. It's also just great to hear Joan Blondell in a different role each week, and so disappointing that we can't judge whether she proved the range of her acting abilities like she hoped in the missing episodes.

However, due to being a movie that precisely no one was asking for a radio version of, I Want a Divorce has to be regarded as a failed experiment but a nonetheless curious footnote in radio history. Sadly, though it gave Joan Blondell 26 weeks of challenging dramatic work, it didn't appear to do anything to improve the trajectory of her movie career and it certainly didn't lower the divorce rates.